Backlash against a British Muslim beauty queen
Heads turn as Shanna Bukhari descends the long, winding staircase into the lobby of the five-star luxury hotel en route to her latest photo shoot.
The British beauty of Pakistani descent is checking her smartphone for messages while maintaining a swift pace in her favourite Prada high heels. Men and women pause to take a sneaky second look at the 25-year-old as she strides off to meet yet another photographer keen to capture her on camera.
Bukhari is used to strangers admiring her from a distance, but these days she is well aware that some of the stares may be hostile after her decision to become the first Muslim to compete for the title of Miss Universe Great Britain put her firmly in the public eye.
Entry into the renowned beauty pageant seemed like a natural step for Bukhari after almost a decade of modelling for Asian bridal magazines. She had no idea what an international furore that decision would cause.
"I'm an ordinary girl from an ordinary family," she says. "If I had known there was going to be this backlash against me I would not have entered Miss Universe. I never expected threats and abuse."
The first story about Bukhari's Miss Universe bid appeared in her local evening newspaper in early March and thrust her into the media spotlight. Within days she was bombarded by interview requests and enquiries from documentary film crews. She appeared on CNN in the US, where there has been huge interest in her story because of the media storm surrounding Rima Fakih, the Muslim-American Miss USA 2010 (see box on following page).
Her story prompted hundreds of people from all walks of life, including many Muslim women, to e-mail her with their positive messages and good-luck wishes. At its peak her Facebook page was getting 400 messages a day from as far afield as Hong Kong and Bangladesh, from across Europe and from many Muslim countries.
"People were sending me messages like 'Good luck, you should definitely go ahead with the pageant' and 'It's your life and your religion so go for it,'" Bukhari says.
But among the largely positive messages there were also threats and abuse.
The negativity came from three diverse quarters: Muslim extremists, white supremacists and feminists. The Muslim extremists bombarded her with messages peppered with foul language, name calling and predictions of damnation. The white supremacists objected to a "dirty Paki Muslim" representing Great Britain. The feminists accused her of degrading women by taking part in a beauty pageant.
Bukhari was sent links to websites featuring women having acid thrown in their faces.
To stop the flood of abuse she closed down her Facebook page, but this didn't stop a friend being sent internet links to images of people killed for standing up for their principles. At that stage Bukhari called in the police, who have taken the threats seriously and fitted alarms at her Manchester flat to make her feel safe in her own home.
"I did feel run down by it all and I was mentally drained," she says. "My mum and dad have been extremely worried about what's happened. It did cross my mind to opt out of the contest. But in the end all of the abuse and threats made me more passionate about taking part. I am now more determined to win it than ever before. But this has changed my life. I am taking these threats seriously and I'm very careful."
A team of bodyguards will protect Bukhari during her public appearances in the future, something the police have advised her is a wise precaution.
Her critics from within the Muslim community say Islam is clear that women should dress in a modest way and that pageants such as Miss Universe fly in the face of that.
Many of Bukhari's professional modelling shots show her wearing a T-shirt and blazer or in traditional Asian dress. When she is filmed for a television interview or a documentary her outfits are consistently unrevealing and often businesslike.
Even with those concessions Bukhari is unapologetic about her decision as a Muslim woman to enter the beauty pageant. She is adamant that there is no conflict between her religion and her entry as a contestant.
"If I thought that what I was doing was wrong I wouldn't be doing it," she says. "There is a minority of people who disagree with what I'm doing but there will always be critics. I am a good Muslim. I always dress modestly but elegantly. I pray and I don't drink alcohol. I don't wear the veil but you don't have to wear the veil to be a good Muslim. I'm a modern British-Muslim girl but that doesn't make me a bad Muslim.
"Some people seem to think that I'm representing Islam but I'm not. This is so much more to me than this beauty pageant. It's my life and no one should judge me for what I'm doing. Only God has the right to judge me."
The swimsuit section of the competition has attracted some of the most vitriolic abuse from her critics. Bukhari always intended to wear a one-piece swimsuit and a sarong rather than a bikini. When asked about this her answer is both unequivocal and to the point.
"I am wearing what I feel most comfortable in but it's about paying respect and being modest as well," she says.
Bukhari is competing against 59 contestants from across the United Kingdom for the title of Miss Universe Great Britain. If she wins she will be pitted against Miss Universe winners from 80 countries in a live television broadcast from São Paulo, Brazil, in September.
One of seven children, with several doctors and lawyers counted among her siblings, Bukhari has enjoyed the support of her family throughout the competition. They have offered advice, encouragement and a chaperone when needed.
"I would not be taking part in Miss Universe if my family were not supportive of me," she says.
But the controversy surrounding Bukhari has meant that her twice-yearly visits to see her extended family in Islamabad have been put on hold for the time being. It has also meant that she has not been able to seriously consider an invitation to take part in a beauty pageant in Pakistan, an offer that resulted from her story being told around the world.
Seeing the ugly face of racism and extremism up close has prompted Bukhari to become increasingly interested in politics, something she now sees as a possible career.
"So many important issues like religion and racism have come up because of what's happened to me. Britain needs help because it's segregated in certain areas," she says. "If I won and represented Great Britain I would be extremely proud. I would feel so honoured to wear that crown. If I won I would be winning against all the stereotypes and the hypocrites."
Bukhari has modelled all her adult life but doesn't fit the stereotypical image of a half-starved waif who makes a living striding up and down catwalks. A healthy size eight, she has a curvaceous figure on a 5ft, 9in frame. Radiant skin and glossy black locks that fall halfway down her back complete the model package.
In person, she's warm, friendly and has impeccable manners. Well spoken, fluent in Urdu and an English Literature graduate, she's a beauty with brains.
During her photo shoot at Manchester's Lowry Hotel she's a natural in front of the camera and 100 per cent professional at all times.
Her involvement in two charities - The Joshua Foundation and the Hemraj Goyal Foundation - goes further than just a token gesture. Bukhari took part in a sponsored fire walk across hot coals to raise money for children with bone diseases, and has the burns on the soles of her feet to prove it.
Her main hobby is shopping, which is part of the reason she loved Dubai when she visited in 2007.
"I love shopping," she says with a laugh. "I find it so relaxing. I have always been into fashion and I love my shoes! If I go shopping and I can't find anything that I like I will always come back with at least two pairs of shoes. I really like Prada and Louis Vuitton. I love designer labels because you really get the quality.
"I also really like dining out in Manchester's finest restaurants. Although I'm not drinking I love sitting in a bar, with friends, and enjoying myself."
Alongside the e-mails of encouragement and missives of hate there have been several messages from hopeful male admirers, whose feelings Bukhari has tried to spare as she disappoints them.
"I have had messages from men who want to take me out for dinner," she says. "I'm always polite and thank them for supporting me. I don't focus on the invitation so that I let them down gently. It's not the way I would go about meeting someone.
"I've not got time for love right now. I'm single and I'm concentrating on the contest, although I would like to get married and have a family at some point in the future."
Having been labelled both a villain and a heroine, Bukhari is keen to make sure that "her journey", as she calls it, over the last six weeks is an inspiration to others.
"People have tried to control me but I won't let them," she says, her eyes flashing with conviction. "I feel that I have got my voice out there now and what's happened to me has made me stronger. Women have rights and women should feel empowered by what I'm doing. I don't just want to be a role model for Muslim women, but for all women everywhere."
The Bukhari file
BORN March 20, 1986, Blackburn, Lancashire
SCHOOLING St Mary's Catholic School, Accrington; Oakwood School, Manchester; graduated from University of Bolton in 2008.
FAMILY Father retired and mother a housewife. Has two brothers and four sisters.
FIRST JOB Sales assistant in the high street store Topshop in Manchester.
NICKNAME Pinky. "When I was born I was really pink in colour and the name stuck. It's really embarrassing when I'm shopping in Selfridges and my mum shouts over to me: 'Pinky, come and have look at these shoes.'"
MUSIC R&B, Rihanna, Nelly Furtado, Cheryl Cole
LAST BOOK READ The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. "I loved it because it's a book all about identity."
HERO The American model Tyra Banks
CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT Shoes and handbags
CAN'T STAND Intolerance and judging people without knowing them.
FAVOURITE GOOD CAUSES The Joshua Foundation www.thejoshuafoundation.co.uk and The Hemraj Goyal Foundation www.hgf.org.uk
Published: April 27, 2011 04:00 AM